Thirst Trap: Irving Thalberg

I’ve talked extensively about this crush in the past, but have yet to explore it in much detail. So, I’ve decided this week I’m going to look at another of my formative Thirst Traps–and yes, folks, this is another swan dive into the deepest, darkest depths of my psyche. I learned in high school that I am an Irving Thalberg fangirl. Read on, faithful readers. Read on.

The name Irving Thalberg is perhaps best known to those in film history circles. The “Boy Wonder” joined the fledgling MGM Studios in the mid-1920s. At the ripe old age of twenty-five, Thalberg had already worked his way to become Head of Production. At this point, he’d been in the industry since joining Universal Studios at age nineteen. That’s a staggering list of accomplishments at a young age… I’m actually really jealous. Anywhoo…

Thalberg with actress (and wife) Norma Shearer and Jean Harlow

The young executive developed an early and intense drive to succeed, thanks to a childhood bout with rheumatic fever. The illness left him with a dramatically weakened heart, and the well-reported story is that he wasn’t expected to live to see the age of thirty. As such, he found himself driven to succeed before the inevitable finally came.

During his tenure heading the studio, Thalberg carried MGM to the pinnacle of Hollywood filmmaking. In this period, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was well-known for its quality (and largely literary) cinema. While Thalberg rarely took a producer credit, he helmed some of the studio’s top movies of the era, from Mutiny on the Bounty to Night at the Opera and even Tarzan the Ape Man. Like him (or hate him), many of Thalberg’s advances around movie-making, audience studies, and preview screenings revolutionized the industry and are still in practice today.

As the 1930s progressed, the politics in and around MGM developed and evolved. Was L.B. Mayer intimidated by his young Head of Production? Were there other factors at play? It ultimately depends who you read. As the years passed, Thalberg’s status within the studio changed and his health quickly deteriorated. He ultimately became an independent producer at the studio, his responsibilities becoming fewer as he suffered a number of heart attacks. He passed away in 1936 at the age of thirty-six, after a bout with pneumonia.

The day of his funeral service, it is reported that all of Hollywood shut down to pay tribute to the talented and well-liked producer.

In the years since his death, Irving Thalberg’s name is probably best known to avid Oscar viewers. It is Thalberg whose name and likeness is used for the ceremony’s “Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award,” which was established the year after his passing.

Thalberg’s name is one which continues to pop in in the legends of the silver screen. Some might be familiar with his friendship with fellow MGM producer (and husband of Jean Harlow) Paul Bern, whose 1932 suicide is still one of the premiere Hollywood mysteries and scandals.

Thalberg is also well connected to the lore surrounding the Marx Brothers. It was Thalberg who brought the comedy team over to MGM for their later films (Night at the Opera, At the Circus, and A Day at the Races). It was Thalberg who reportedly changed up the brothers’ structure and rejiggered their zany formula. Like those movies or not, Thalberg stands as incredibly influential in the career of the comedy legends.

Thalberg with Norma Shearer

Looking back at the first screenplay I ever wrote (back in high school), I discovered that it’s largely a piece of Irving Thalberg fan fiction. Is it the suits? Probably. I love me a good three-piece suit. Is it that I’m stupidly attracted to intelligence? That too! That drive and determination in the face of a really crap lot in life is actually kinda hot too…is that weird? Don’t answer that! Did I get a lot of mileage out of this crush?? Not particularly. This isn’t the kind of thing other high schoolers…understand.

In fact, Irving Thalberg continues to play a part in my writing. Crush? Fascination? Muse? Probably the favorite screenplay I wrote featured Thalberg as one of the leads in an examination of the Paul Bern suicide. Thoughts continue to kick around…biopic. Yes! I said biopic. It could be great. Come on, Hollywood. You know you’re interested! Hell, cast Adrian Brody. It would work!

However, there’s one thing which also becomes strikingly clear as you look at pictures of Thalberg. His snapshots with wife and Academy Award winning actress Norma Shearer can best be described as “couple goals.” While there’s a complete lack of romance in written accounts, you wouldn’t know it from looking at the pictures. There are stories which range from Thalberg having her pick an engagement ring from a tray of rings…wait…maybe that’s not horrible. Then there’s also stories of an…overly close…relationship with his mother. *Plugs ears with fingers*.

Yes, I’ll admit it! I ship these two… hard. Just look at them. I mean, can you really blame a girl? We all want someone who looks at you how Irving Thalberg looks at his wife and children.

I know, this was a bit of a specialized entry for today’s Thirst Trap. However, with each year that passes Irving Thalberg’s name and reputation gets hazier in the scope of Hollywood history. Fans of classic films (and I know you’re out there!) be sure to check out the young movie executive’s story. Contemporary Hollywood is largely built on his (adorable!) shoulders.



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